We've heard horror stories of people who dial 911 from their cell phones, only to die on the line as dispatchers listen helplessly because they can't get an accurate fix on the caller's location. The big problem? When you're calling from indoors, thick walls prevent your phone from talking to GPS satellites.
Now federal regulators have unanimously approved a plan that would change all that. Under new rules from the Federal Communications Commission, wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T will have to provide 911 dispatchers with more accurate location data so that first-responders know how to find people in need.
Within a few years, the carriers will be expected to deliver specific latitude-longitude coordinates for a wireless 911 caller that's accurate to within 50 meters, or 164 feet. Another option will be to provide dispatchers with a caller's specific address, down to the suite or room number. Existing technologies like WiFi hotspots can help narrow down a caller's location substantially, and part of the solution will rely on those.
In addition, the carriers will be required to add vertical coordinates to the information they give to dispatchers. That information, gathered from air pressure sensors in phones, should help first-responders determine what floor to go to in a multi-story building.
The new information "tells first responders exactly which door they need to knock on, or in some cases kick in, during an emergency," said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.
The plan piggybacks off of a voluntary agreement struck between the wireless industry and 911 workers outlined in November, and represents a departure from an earlier, more aggressive proposal from the FCC. Some Democrats on the commission, such as Mignon Clyburn, lamented that they would've preferred that the final rules go further.
"I would've preferred that the rules we originally proposed would be the ones we vote on today," said Clyburn. But with the alternative being "no rules," the industry-backed proposal passed Thursday by a 5-0 vote.